Back during the early years, back when they were supposed to welcome us in, embrace democracy, and open their doors to McDonalds and Wal-Mart, aviators made a difference in the lives of people living along the Tigris River in so many interesting ways. This is a story of one such event.
One hot summer night in 2003, we finished up a reconnaissance and security mission in Mosul. Tim Slifko and I flew lead and our wingman was our Squadron Commander (SCO) Steve Schiller. Flying with the SCO was Lieutenant Ian Anderson. We landed at Mosul Airfield to get gas after which we planned to return to Qayyarah West Airfield where we were based. We relaxed in the cockpit while the refuelers filled the aircraft up with fuel. I sat wondering how different Nineveh might have been when Jonah was there. At that time we were having difficulty with an ole’ boy that liked shooting mortars at the airfield, and while Jonah did receive a nasty reception, one that eventually got him swallowed whole by a whale, I was certain they didn’t shoot mortars at him.
After we topped off with gas, we departed to the north then turned back south along the Tigris River. Just as we passed midfield I saw two guys, adjacent to the airfield, dive into a ditch. They were clearly trying to hide from us. I pointed them out to Tim and told Steve and Ian that we needed to come back around and take a closer look. Sure enough there were two men laying flat on their bellies trying to avoid detection. As Tim and I looked around we noticed that there were some bags in the ditch with them. That’s it! These were the guys hiding mortar rounds so they could attack us later. We had them dead to rights.
I told the SCO what Tim and I thought we had happened upon. He concurred with our assessment so we decided to look around some more to see if we could find some more evidence. While we searched we also called the Division Rear Security Force, which consisted of a fifteen to twenty-man patrol from a coalition partner nation, which I will not name. They had one American sergeant assigned to them to assist with radio calls and to gap the English barrier. We got him on the radio and told him to come out and get these guys. He agreed to do so, so while he prepared the reaction force, we continued our reconnaissance.
We flew down the trail the two men were walking on and found nothing until we reached the river. Sure enough, hidden under some willow trees, at the river’s edge, was a small flat bottom boat and more bags. This further confirmed our certainty of their guilt.
While we searched around the edge of the river Tim saw the two men get up and begin to walk away. Since it was pitch black dark they could not be certain that we saw them, but of course we could see them perfectly well. We circled back around quickly and flipped our white light (search light) on them. They immediately dove back into the ditch and lay flat on the ground.
Finally, the sergeant with the reaction force called us on the radio. He was on his way with the cavalry. We saw them as they exited the airfield perimeter gate so we flew over and linked up with them. We told them to simply follow us. We’d fly over the old dirt road that led to the location of the two men. We’d have them there in a matter of minutes.
Meanwhile the SCO and Ian kept a watch on the two evildoers. The sergeant agreed so we began slowly hovering down the road. After about 500 meters they stopped and got out of their trucks. This made no sense. They were still over a kilometer from the two men. But, they got out and lined up in a single file, then Tim and I watched in amazement as they went to port arms and began high stepping down the road. Now when I say “high stepping” I mean they were jogging, but their knees were coming up waist high, ninety degrees to the ground. The American sergeant jogged along at the back of their file to keep up with them. I called him on the radio.
“X-ray one-nine, this is Saber 3, over.”
Already out of breath, he respond, “This is X-ray one-nine, over.”
“You’re over a click (one kilometer) from these two guys. Get back in your trucks and we can lead you to them. They are flat on their bellies. You can drive right to them, over,” I told him.
“Roger, sir I’m trying to stop these guys now.”
Well, we watched as he ran up and down the line trying to get them to understand that this could be a much easier task if they would listen and just follow his instructions. They high stepped on down the road a bit then finally decided to stop. Some of them bent over at the waist, hands on their knees, most certainly, already, painfully, uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, the two evildoers tried to get up and run several times but the SCO would put the light on them and they’d dive for cover until finally they decided that they just had to run for it. That’s when the SCO told Ian to fire warning shots into the ground in front of them with his M4 rifle. Ian, already at the ready, fired into the path in front of the men and this time they hit the ground and tried to sink into the earth. They were fixed and they knew it.
Finally, the sergeant got our coalition partners back in their trucks and they began to slowly follow us down the road again. After about 500-600 more meters they stopped and got back out. Again, I called the sergeant.
“X-ray one-nine, just keep following us, over,” I urged.
“Saber 3, this is X-ray one-nine. I am trying to get them to keep following, but they are having none of it. They think they need to dismount, over.”
“Okay, have it your way,” I replied.
So they got back out and once again formed up in a file, came to port arms, and began high stepping down the road. Every now and then we lit up the road in front of them to keep them going in the right direction, but soon their formation began to stretch out. They were having a rough go of it and they still had a ways to travel. Over the next thirty minutes we watch them in complete exhaustion slowly make their way to our suspects.
The American sergeant was at the front when they made it to the evildoers, but he too was having difficulty talking on the radio by this point.
“Say…Saber 3……X…Ray here. Where are they?” he asked between deep gasps for air.
Tim used a laser pointer to point them out. They put flashlights on the ditch and saw the two men lying on their bellies. Suddenly, our coalition partners took off in a sprint indicative of renewed energy. They pounced on the two men, put them face down in the road and flex cuffed them immediately. I thought for a minute that our friends might give the evildoers a little roughing up just for causing their exhaustion, but they maintained their professionalism. I did see several of them take out a cigarette and light up, but otherwise they just sat down in the road for a well deserved rest.
I told the sergeant that they had bags with them and we suspected they were mortar rounds. Once again out of breath he said, “Laze the bags with your pointer and I’ll get them.”
Tim lazed the bags. He ran over and tore them open. Then, completely out of breath and exhausted he keyed the mic and in a disappointed voice said, “P-O-T-A-T-O-E-S!”
Without missing a beat, I keyed the mic and came right back with, “Tater Rustlers!”
And so it was, in those days that Kiowa pilots were known to help the local populace, yes even the farmers, in ways that not even they could imagine. As it turned out they confessed of their crimes. They had floated down the Tigris River and were stealing bags full of potatoes to later sell in the market. That night was forever known as the night of the tater rustlers.